Director Martin Scorsese's latest movie delivers a different sort of New York anti-hero from the leading characters in his past films. Kaleem Aftab reports
Martin Scorsese looks like a man without care in the world. As the president of the jury at the Marrakech Film Festival, the 71-year-old is waltzing to screenings, giving out awards and, now, sitting in an opulent room at the Royal El Mansour hotel looking like a Buddha on a throne.
It's hard to see him as a director about to unleash a major movie, The Wolf of Wall Street. The Christmas international release date is timed to make the adaptation of Jordan Belfort's outlandish memoir eligible for the Oscars, and the buzz from early award screenings is that it might win many.
The biggest noise is that this could be the picture that sees Leonardo DiCaprio finally walk away with the big acting prize.
The Scorsese regular plays Belfort, convicted of embezzling $100 million in the 1990s. Before being jailed for 22 months, he squandered much of the loot on expensive boys toys: a helicopter, a yacht that once belonged to Coco Chanel, huge houses, prostitutes and drugs. His hero was Gordon Gekko, the character with the "greed is good" mantra of Oliver Stone's Wall Street.
Belfort wrote the memoir while incarcerated using Tom Wolfe's The Bonfire of the Vanities as a how-to-write guide..
But the stockbroker might seem an unlikely Scorsese protagonist.
Indeed, the director says he took on the project because, "Leo wanted to do it". He explains, "I'm very happy with this. Leo DiCaprio, we kind of see things the same way. We have similar sensibilities and we want to make a certain kind of statement, hence the projects we choose. I chose Gangs of New York and Shutter Island. He wanted to do The Aviator. I chose The Departed. He wanted to do this new film."
The New Yorker's career has been built on characters racked with guilt seeking redemption for their sins: Harvey Keitel's numbers-runner Charlie in Mean Streets, Robert De Niro's boxer Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull and DiCaprio's federal marshal Teddy Daniels in Shutter Island. They're all characters whose biggest enemies are themselves. Scorsese has always attributed this fascination to his Catholic upbringing on the streets of Little Italy, Manhattan in the 1950s. Charlie, Jake and Teddy are fictional reincarnations of Scorsese.
"I do identify with them," he states. "Particularly in Mean Streets and Raging Bull. In Raging Bull he seems to find some redemption, he really does. I don't know how really. It's the scene with his brother, I think, but the more important thing is to sit down and look at himself in the mirror and not hate himself too much, that I thought was a good place to reach. Not that I was able to do that, but the character. I think in any of the stories, there is a sense of trying for that redemption. I don't know about the new one, the new one is somewhat different."
His new film could be seen as a look at the deadly sin of greed. Scorsese sees materialism and selfishness as the blight of modern America, a greedy place.
"That's one of the reasons we made The Wolf of Wall Street, not to show the greed, but to be in the greed, to be part of it, part of the exaltation of it, part of the excitement of it and part of the destruction it causes."
When Scorsese talks, as with many of his characters, his perspective starts with memories of childhood. A sentence is quickly followed by a qualifying sentence.
"I was born in 1942," he continues. "After the war, I remember America in the 1950s, yes it was more innocent, more quote/unquote repressed, no doubt, culturally, to a certain extent. I don't remember, honestly, and we weren't taught a great deal in certain schools, in certain specific things about American history, but I don't remember them saying that the country was formed only so that everybody could get rich, I just don't believe it. That feels, for me right now, that is what it feels like."
There are signs that, having entered his 70s, the director is taking measures to slow down. One step is taking more of a back seat in his attempts to restore old classic films. In 2007 he helped set up the World Cinema Fund for film preservation and he says that its to merge with the Film Foundation in America: "My time is limited. I have got my own films. I have my family issues, so all of us will club together."
He does not watch much television, despite having worked on Boardwalk Empire for the past five years: "I don't have time to watch any other shows, the famous ones. I've seen a few episodes of some, in fact. I only watched The Sopranos once or twice. I just couldn't connect with it. People wonder why I can't do something with that world now, but it was a different situation to when I was growing up 50 years ago, a different world; the intent is the same, but I won't get the details right. Basically, I started watching Curb Your Enthusiasm; that is the key one, that is when I realised you could do something on television."
Scorsese even appeared in an episode, playing himself in a season opener.
But his passion for cinema is clear from his jury duties. For much of his career the talk was of him continually being snubbed by the Academy until he finally won for The Departed.
"I started making my first major film in 1973, so from then until 2007, it's a long time not being recognised by the Academy in that way. The problem is that it's not about the prize. It's about being able to get films made. That is what I keep my eye on. When the actual statuette was awarded to me, and by the way, I didn't think The Departed would get anything, it came at a good time in my life, for personal reasons, for family reasons. It certainly helped me get financing for a couple of pictures, and I hope my next one, Silence."
The adaptation of Shusaku Endo's 1966 novel Silence is a project Scorsese has been touting for more than a decade. Set in 17th century Japan, its about the government clamping down on Jesuits and Catholicism.
It's rumoured that Brit Andrew Garfield will play the lead role, but Scorsese didn't talk about casting.
He does say though that he has around a dozen projects being prepared, one of which is a television series he is developing with Rolling Stone Mick Jagger about the music business in the 1970s. The other is with De Niro, although this is not going to be Taxi Driver 2. The film they are planning is called The Irishman and there would be parts for Al Pacino and Joe Pesci.
It's bound to kick-start the perennial debate about the merits of De Niro versus DiCaprio. "If I can be presumptuous enough to say they are interchangeable," weighs in Scorsese. "They might not think that, but I think that."
Who: Martin Scorsese, American film directing great
What: The Wolf of Wall Street starring Leonardo DiCaprio
When: Opens Boxing Day
- TimeOut / The Independent